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UNESCO calls for recognizing African Indigenous knowledge in disaster management

Indigenous people – Maasai women in Kenya ©UNESCO/ Xinhong Li

Increasingly global and continental policy frameworks such as the Africa Plan of Action and the Sendai Framework have promoted the importance of indigenous and local knowledge and advocated for an enhanced role in initiatives to mitigate disaster risk and climate change. However, in reality such knowledge is rarely drawn upon or utilized to inform development and guide implementation of policies. Consequently, that lack of application of indigenous and local knowledge, particularly at local level, undermines participation of local/rural communities in implementation of Disaster Risk reduction policies, and by extension, the implementation of the Africa Plan of Action and the Sendai Framework.

There are more than 350 million indigenous people worldwide who mostly depend on the environment for sustenance and who face severe impacts of climate change due to the nature of their locality i.e. high-risk environments; unpredictable and variable weather conditions. It is therefore necessary to identify and recognize the uniqueness of indigenous knowledge and its potential in enriching the understanding of the environment and disaster management.

On 16th Nov 2021, UNESCO partnered with UNDRR and the African Union to organize an online session on “African Indigenous and Local Knowledge Systems and Practices on Disaster Risk Management” with the goal of collecting examples and examining the potential of indigenous local knowledge in climate change adaptation and disaster risk management. The session was held as a preconference event to the Eighth Africa Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction held under the theme: “Towards Disaster Risk-Informed Development for a Resilient Africa in a COVID-19 Transformed World”.

The session was opened by Mr. Gatkuoth Kai, Technical Coordinator for Disaster Risk Reduction of the African Union Commission who mentioned that: “As the African Union, we believe that when indigenous knowledge is recognized, people and communities will partake in policy decisions and implementation and we can therefore bridge gaps between communities and policies”.

Ms. Nailejileji Tipap, Gender and Public Relation Coordinator, Pastoralist Indigenous NGOs Forum gave a presentation on some of the signals/ behaviors from birds, insects and plants that indigenous women use to identify or predict the weather situation in Tanzania. She concluded by indicating that women are active creators of information and knowledge but sometimes their low status within the society contributes to their exclusion on climate change adaptation conversations. She called for the need to conduct specific research that is sensitive to the differentiation of community knowledge along gender lines.

Another panelist, Dr. Joseph Karanja, Associate Project Officer of the LINKS Section of UNESCO Natural Sciences Sector presented on linking ILK with science. He said that while indigenous people may not be able to read or write, they have a deep knowledge about ecosystems that is less studied by science and can be traced back centuries: “Indigenous peoples and local communities are one of the most eco-literate and adaptive human beings”.

He mentioned the importance of working with different knowledge systems (scientific, indigenous and local knowledge) in disaster risk reduction while acknowledging indigenous and local knowledge as a legitimate and valid source of knowledge

Dr. Tabi Joda, Executive Director of Greenaid and coordinator of indigenous network talked about the existing challenges hindering the adoption of ILK in policies, ways of life and even academia. He stressed on the injustices that exist on perceptions and when classifying indigenous knowledge from different continents that are not favorable for the promotion and advancement of ILK. He reiterated the importance of recognizing not only big sites but small areas that have existed and preserved for centuries as UNESCO heritage sites: “I am recommending strongly to UNESCO as a cultural custodian of the global cultural system to look into social aspects, justice and cultural aspect of balancing the injustices. Let us not only look at big sites as heritage sites worthy of conservation but other small sites e.g. trees preserved for generations should be a UNESCO heritage site as it constitutes a bulk of knowledge for generations to come and for ecosystems and biodiversity conservation.